By Steve Lichtenstein
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Their venues may be only about six miles apart, but the Knicks and Nets are polar opposites in the way they conduct their basketball businesses.
Nowhere was the contrast more apparent than in the tone and substance of their respective end-of-season press conferences.
On Monday, Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks told the assembled media that he remains committed to a patient approach to rebuilding a franchise that finished with a league-worst record of 20-62. He sounded, well, logical.
Knicks president Phil Jackson, meanwhile, created a ruckus with his own State-of-the-Franchise session on Friday. He tweaked almost everyone in the organization, including stars Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, for the team’s playoffs-less plight.
Marks noted on Monday how his players took to various social media outlets to express their enthusiasm, despite the season’s harsh results. Anthony’s Instagram post on Friday was worth a thousand words and Porzingis was reportedly so disturbed by the circus atmosphere that he blew off his exit meeting with Jackson.
Marks would never throw a player under the bus the way Jackson did with Anthony. When asked whether he wanted Anthony back next season, Jackson said, “We have not been able to win with (Anthony) on the court at this time and I think with the direction with our team is that he is a player that will be better off somewhere else in using his talents somewhere where he can win and chase that championship. Right now we need players that are really active, can play every single play, defensively and offensively.”
Though not as accomplished as Anthony, Nets center Brook Lopez is similarly a flawed player who has been the subject of trade rumors throughout his nine-year tenure, including several times during the approximately 14 months Marks has been at the helm.
Regardless if the Nets’ all-time leading scorer remains on the market, Marks was effusive in his praise of him on Monday.
“Brook is one of the elite centers in the league,” Marks said. “No question there. You look at the way his game has translated — not just in (coach Kenny Atkinson’s) system but what he’s done in the offseason. He’s worked hard on the performance aspect — his body and so forth — and also changing his game and adapting a little bit.”
Marks was referring to Lopez’s growth into a threat from 3-point range. The 7-footer was an aggregate 3-for-31 from behind the arc in his career heading into the 2016-17 season. His subsequent 134 treys led all NBA centers and his 34.6 percent efficiency placed eighth among those players at his position with more than 150 attempts.
Jackson, on the other hand, is not so enamored with bigs taking long-distance shots. He said on Friday that he once praised Porzingis after a game this season for not taking any.
“That’s sometimes just a cheap way to score points,” Jackson said.
Never mind the faulty math, it’s comments like those that convince me that Jackson took this job as some sort of experiment. He wanted to prove to the basketball community that he doesn’t need someone like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant to win with his beloved triangle offense. As a result, Jackson, a record-setting coach in his previous life, spends an inordinate amount of time on the practice court teaching this archaic system, usurping the authority of the men he’s tasked with actually coaching the team.
Roster construction? You know, the job for which Knicks owner James Dolan reportedly pays him $12 million per year (and was recently extended for another two years despite an 80-166 record over three seasons)? Jackson pivots like he’s Kevin McHale of the 1980s in the low post.
Jackson’s most recent composition was a horrendous mix of declining and injury-prone veterans that was marketed as a last-ditch effort to get Anthony over the top. Instead, the group never adequately complemented budding star Porzingis and produced a measly 31 wins.
Now he’s hoping to find a taker for the remaining two seasons on Anthony’s bloated contract (where Anthony would be willing to waive his no-trade clause; if accurate, TMZ’s report of Anthony’s separation with wife La La could complicate matters) and blow it all up.
Marks already started from rock bottom. The Nets became a joke under his predecessor, Billy King. Bereft of their own first-round draft pick until 2019, the Nets have since been conscientious in building the right way. They have targeted young, athletic players and veterans known for having high character.
Without a superstar, this strategy will take years to bear fruit. And though Brooklyn will again have ample salary cap room to sign free agents in July, Marks emphasized that he wouldn’t be spending owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s cash unnecessarily.
“You don’t want to go and sign free agents and next thing you know your payroll is capped out and you are a 25-win team,” Marks said. “So we’re going to have to build this, as I’ve said before, strategically, have patience with it.”
With assistant general manager Trajan Langdon, Marks has been searching the Earth for talent. He said on Monday that he will be making another trek to Europe in a few days. Atkinson will tag along, ostensibly to meet with Prokhorov, but also to complete the organization’s due diligence on international players.
Jackson may have had his highest rates of return on the Knicks’ foreign investments — in addition to Porzingis, Willy Hermangomez has emerged as a starter and Mindaugas Kuzminskas could develop into a decent rotation player — but he was a lot less hands-on about it. Jackson passed on a scouting opportunity in his own building last month when he blew off the NCAA tournament for Shaquille O’Neal’s statue unveiling in Los Angeles.
A side benefit of the Nets replacing King with Marks is that the organization’s Knicks obsession has all but disappeared from public view. There was no bragging when Brooklyn beat its rival twice in a week late in the season. Why should the Nets, considering how far both teams have fallen? The Nets want to be evaluated on their own merits, even at this low point in their Brooklyn existence, not in comparison to the Knicks.
So it’s up to folks in the media to waste time arguing about which of New York City’s two professional teams is in better shape. It’s a discussion I look forward to having with my co-host John Schmeelk during a future (shameless plug) City Game podcast on this site.
Despite the current draft pick and overall asset disparity, I’ll take the Nets.
Marks has a plan. Jackson has a fantasy.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveLichtenst1